President Donald Trump has tweeted and rallied, cajoled and extolled in his all-out effort to save Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who is struggling to survive a Republican runoff against an opponent embraced by much of the president’s own base.
And as the contest barrels to a close here on Tuesday, the race is emerging as a test of Trump’s ability to bestow his brand and his star power on someone his base is not inclined to support.
“It’s a big test for him,” said Alabama Republican strategist Chris Brown. “It’s a test of the strength of Donald Trump, of whether his followers transfer their votes for someone he wants them to vote for. It’s a big statement of his political capital.”
This primary has divided both conservative voters and Republican leaders. Trump’s base has been deeply reluctant to support the incumbent senator, seen by some activists as too close to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who has so far failed to shepherd the president’s legislative agenda through Congress. McConnell allies have spent millions on Strange’s behalf despite Trump’s insistence that the two hardly know each other.
Plus, one of Trump’s own Cabinet members, Ben Carson, has released a statement praising Strange’s challenger, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, and ex-White House aides Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are actively working to boost the senator’s opponent as well, with Bannon—who now heads the right-wing outlet Breitbart—expected to rally for Moore in Alabama in the final days of the race.
All of this makes Trump’s wager on Strange more significant.
“If he goes in there and Luther Strange wins, the president is going to get a ton of credit, and rightfully so,” said Austin Barbour, a Republican strategist from neighboring Mississippi who has been both critical and complimentary of Trump in the past.
It could also signal the potency of a Trump endorsement as the party prepares for a 2018 congressional election season that will be marked by a large number of candidates seeking to claim the Trump mantle, especially in primaries.
But Strange's victory is not a sure thing, and Trump clearly knows it.
Trump repeatedly praised Strange’s loyalty and talked him up as a conservative leader who would help “drain that swamp” during a rally here Friday night.
“Luther Strange is our man,” he told a crowd of around 7,500 people who cheered much more loudly for Trump than for Strange.
Alabama is one of the most pro-Trump states in the nation, but for the first time in his presidency, Trump finds himself directly at odds with the most diehard elements of his base—and they are not all getting in line just because he tells them to, with many instead supporting Moore, a conservative hardliner and hero to some religious voters.
“I don’t see them changing their minds just because the president said so in person,” said Brent Buchanan, a GOP strategist based in Alabama who is closely watching polling of the race. “The big takeaway is, Roy Moore is an anomaly. Traditional tactics haven’t worked, just like traditional tactics didn’t work against Trump.”
In interviews at a recent rally for Moore in Montgomery, attendees repeatedly said that they supported—even loved—the president, but strongly disagreed with him and with his decision to weigh in in a primary.
“Overall I think he’s done a very good job, but the endorsement of Luther Strange is not a good move,” warned Jodi McDade, 65, of Equality, Ala. “He spent lots of political capital he may need down the road.”
Strategists such as Brown and Barbour stress that if Strange loses, that will hardly be the president’s fault. The race is an imperfect test of national dynamics, they say, because there are too many complicating local factors tied to Strange’s associations with ex-Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned in scandal but previously appointed Strange to the Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But at the Friday night rally in Huntsville, Trump himself made clear that he feels he is risking some credibility by going to bat for Strange, musing aloud that he “might have made a mistake.” He felt compelled to go to bat for the senator, however, in part because Strange offered unquestioning support for Trump-backed efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare—no “quid pro quo,” Trump noted approvingly, repeatedly calling that “the coolest thing.”
“We have to be loyal in life, you know, there’s something called loyalty,” he told the crowd. “And I might have made a mistake. Because here’s the story. If Luther doesn’t win…they’re going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump. This is a total embarrassment.’”
And as attendees spilled out of the arena, some said Trump’s personal pitch made them more inclined to support Strange.
“We need someone in the Republican Senate who will support Trump’s agenda and get things done,” said Bill Largen, 78, of Huntsville. “He endorsed him. Luther Strange supports his agenda. This substantiated my vote.”
Several attendees interviewed before the rally said that they adored Trump and were undecided in the Senate race—meaning that his administration’s last-ditch efforts to back Strange have the potential to move some votes in what is expected to be a low-turnout contest. Vice President Mike Pence is also expected to campaign for Strange on Monday.
But others were noncommittal as they streamed out into the warm Huntsville night, saying they had just come to see the show.
“I make up my own mind,” said Dave Hvizda, an engineer accompanied by his family, including his young sons, one of whom was wearing a Trump hat. Hvizda remained undecided, leaning toward Strange but continuing to assess “the lesser of two evils.”
“I wasn’t here for Luther Strange,” he continued. “I was here to bring my sons to see the president of the United States.”